March 21, 2004

TEXT: II Corinthians 5:16-21
Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32

By this time each year I’m pretty much jazzed out with hearing so much music during the past ten days. One thing I realized, though, is how certain chords or melodies can trigger images in the mind and bring back memories long forgotten.

Film can do that as well. Sometimes we don’t remember the entire story, but there may be scenes and images that resonate with us. There is a scene early in the film Dr. Zhivago where young Yuri has attended the burial of his mother. He lies in bed that night as the wind raps a tree branch against his window. He looks out and sees a past that is no more and uncertain future. Later, when he sees Lara for the first time, it is through a café window, and then at the end when he sees her again for the last time, it is through a bus window. Windows enable us to see, but they also keep us from obtaining what we desire, or what we have lost.

Perhaps it was hearing Jeff Kashiwa playing a bluesy number that triggered a memory of a young boy lying awake on a hot summer’s night and hearing a neighbor boy several doors away playing soft blues on his saxophone. In the distance, a train whistle fades as though someone is going somewhere, but you are not. There is a sense of melancholy or lament that a sax is capable of evoking, just as the vibrato of a harmonica’s wail on an open prairie recalls a long ago sadness. Blues is the sound of loneliness.

Like Jazz, the blues is an original American art-form born of the experience of African slaves in the south. It is a blending of African and European musical traditions to create something unique and distinct from its parents. Robert Baker, in his essay, A Brief History of the Blues, says that in pre-Civil War days, “the slaves sang songs filled with words telling of their extreme suffering and privation. One of the many responses to their oppressive environment resulted in the field holler. The field holler gave rise to the spiritual, and the blues, "notable among all human works of art for their profound despair...They gave voice to the mood of alienation that prevailed in the construction camps of the South." For it was in the Mississippi Delta that blacks were often forcibly conscripted to work on the levee and land-clearing crews, where they were often abused and then tossed aside or worked to death . . . Southern prisons [road crews and work gangs] also contributed considerably to the blues tradition through work songs and the songs of death row and murder, prostitutes, the warden, the hot sun, and a hundred other privations.

The blues form was first popularized at the beginning of the last century by the black composer W.C. Handy who lived from 1873 to 1958. Handy is credited with the birth of the blues with his popular song "Memphis Blues" in 1912 and the "St. Louis Blues" in 1914. Surprisingly, the blues form was popularized by Southern whites during World War I. During the 1920's the blues became a national craze and its place in American music was assured. The blues' influence has spread from jazz to rock and roll and beyond as it has reached out across the world. Yesterday was blues day at the Berks Jazz Fest and seventy-year-old legend, John Mayall, played to a sold-out audience. Through words and melodies there was a sense forlorn depression.

Psalm 137 is a blues song. It’s about a people with a bad case of the "homesick" blues. It's a story of the Jews, exiled in Babylon, a long way from home.

By the rivers of Babylon—
there we sat down and there we wept when we remembered Zion.
On the willows there we hung up our harps.
For there our captors asked us for songs, and our tormentors asked for mirth, saying, "Sing us one of the songs of Zion!"
But how could we sing the Lord's song in a foreign land?
If I forget you, O Jerusalem, let my right hand wither!
Let my tongue cling to the roof of my mouth, if I do not remember you, if I do not set Jerusalem above my highest joy.

One can imagine the Prodigal Son singing this song. Without money he is reduced to taking the lowest and dirtiest kind of work just to survive. Life is terrible and his prospects are bleak. As the young man slops hogs he begins to think longingly of home. And the more he thinks, the more he knows what he has to do: he must return. He's got the homesick blues.

'How many of my father's hired hands have bread enough and to spare, but here I am dying of hunger! I will get up and go to my father, and I will say to him, "Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son; treat me like one of your hired hands."' He had the “Pig Sty Blues.”
Animals, like humans, also have a homing instinct, a desire to return to where they belong. We’ve all heard stories of how dogs, left behind hundreds of miles from home, found their way back. And then there is that folk song called, “The Cat Came Back.”

We want to be in that place where we are safe, where we are loved, where we belong. Home is not necessarily a place, but a state of mind.

Home can also mean the place where we are in right relationship to God. There's a very real despair that can come over us when we are estranged from the one who gives us both life and meaning. So much of our sickness and ill health is caused by our own psyche. We may even go to the doctor thinking it is something organic, when ultimately the problem is relational. Our dilemma is that we can't feel better until we realize the source of the pain. St. Augustine once said perceptively, "God has made us for himself, and the human heart is restless until it finds its rest in God."

When we forget our home, the place where we belong and stray away from God, a vacuum develops in the heart. And only God can fill this—not a trip to Walmart or a new car or an extended vacation or even the best of human relationships. We can have a certain homesickness, a sense of blues in the night, which only coming back home can rectify-- coming back home to God and to a completeness which is found only in that relationship.

The story of the Prodigal Son is the tale of an overconfident young man returning to a forgiving father. More importantly, it's a parable of every man and every woman awakening and coming back home to a loving God. It's about realizing when things are wrong and then taking the steps toward making it right.

We may be a long way from home, singing the blues in the night, but God alone can satisfy our deepest longing in life, and the way back must start with our recognition and our initiative, of coming to ourselves and realizing where we are. God is home all the time. We need to remember it is we who go away and we who must return.

-Harry L. Serio